“This is what depression is – an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain”


Mental illnesses are real health problems, with identifying features and proven treatments. But it is still regarded as taboo in many communities and depression in particular is often swept under the rug. Leila Smith* (20) shares her story.

I was diagnosed with depression when I was in matric, two years ago. I was just not coping, generally, so I went to see a psychologist just so I could try to get some guidance on coping skills, and that kind of thing. She asked me the general questions that they ask – if I was having trouble sleeping, trouble eating, if I was sad all the time, the usual kinds of questions that psychologists ask. I answered yes to all of them because I was really not doing too well, and she referred me to a psychiatrist for medication.

Medication for depression takes about six to 12 months to kick in and it can be a bit of a roller coaster to be on them, not only for me but also for those around me. I have been hospitalised three times. It’s not a physical condition that you’re hospitalised for when you’re depressed, but you are under full-time medical observation because the valium balancing medications are very high in chemical composition. This is what depression is – an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain.

I’m not from Johannesburg but I came here to study. It was really difficult for me though, and after a while I dropped out and went back home. I’d been living alone and it’s difficult to be in a new place with no support structure when you’re depressed. My boyfriend lives in Johannesburg so I thought being closer to him would help take my mind off of things, but it wasn’t how I expected it to be. He is a drug addict and when you date an addict you don’t just date a person – you date the drugs too.

Living day to day is a struggle for me. I can’t wake up, I can’t leave the house, I can’t do menial things and I feel so helpless. Sometimes I just want to spend time with my friends but I know that I won’t be good company so I cancel plans a lot. I think my main problem is that I can’t really focus on one thing and although I have tried, it’s just something that is out of my control.

I want to try to get my degree. I’ve applied for a new course in 2015, and I hope it will work out this time. I feel like I’ve let everyone down, and it’s a horrible feeling. But there hasn’t been anything I could do about it. I’m starting on new medication soon, and maybe these will be able to help me more. I’m hoping that things will get better – for now, I’m just focusing on getting through the day, taking it one thing at a time, and hoping for the best.

* Not her real name

– As told to Aaisha Dadi Patel

You can contact a counsellor with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group between 8am and 8pm Monday to Sunday by calling 011 234 4837, or call Lifeline SAâ€s national counselling hotline on 0861 322 322.


  1. It’s tough. I know someone who has been through something similar, and Leila needs to, apart from getting her meds right, see a counselor. There is free counseling at Helen Joseph Hospital in Joburg if money is an issue. Wits also has counseling services.
    And also make sure that your shrink is talking to your psychiatrist about your meds – the Psychiatrist prescribes the meds. It’s a trial and error situation with meds, so Leila should not give up. She will eventually find the right meds that work for her. She should observe the effects and tell her doctor/psychologist. This is very important. She should also try and join a support group either through SADAG, Tara or Helen Joseph. It seems like a lot, but at least she will have the support that she needs. She can finish her studies too. Good luck, and thanks for speaking up on the issue. Depression can be managed, as hard as it is from day to day.


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